This John Ford directed classic is one of the better Westerns in film history that went on to influence many films within the wider reaches of the genre through the 60’s, 70’s and beyond. The film follows legendary Western actor John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, an ex confederate soldier who returns to visit his brother Aaron and his family in their ranch. Ethan and Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) venture out to protect the land from Comanches but when they return they find the ranch burnt to the ground with Aaron and his wife dead and their two daughters taken hostage. The narrative then kicks in when Ethan gathers a group of ‘searchers’ to hunt down the Comanche tribe and recover the lost girls. This film really does have it all, the plot is gripping and takes entertaining turns throughout, the dialogue is expertly crafted with so much meaning behind many lines that build character and more, there is some well integrated humour injected here and there, and the cinematography is sweeping with just beautiful scenery.
One of the biggest highlights of the film is not only the performance by John Wayne but the way it handles his character being a Western protagonist who isn’t necessarily a “hero” of sorts. There are many things he says and does at key moments over the course of the film that establish him as being someone who isn’t a white collar, save the day good guy….. it helps to blur the lines between good and bad and gets you thinking. So much of this movie depended on the viewer not necessarily liking Ethan but rather responding to him and his behaviour. And he was a very engaging character with some great meaningful dialogue and an arc that may or may not be resolved by the closing scene but it is a damn interesting one.
One thing i occasionally touch on in some reviews but don’t ever really comment on is in fact mis-en-scene, but here, especially for a film as influential as this one you can’t not talk about it. Every detail in every shot in this film feels so meticulously planned out by John Ford that just watching a scene as simple as people moving about a house is just as impressive and stunning as an outdoor sweeping shot of a beautiful vista. There is so much detail to pick out of every scene in every set that it all just adds to the authenticity of what you are watching possibly maybe being real… One recurring shot choice throughout the film that it opens and closes with is a camera directed out the door of a house looking out into the immediate and distant environment and typically framing a particular character or characters. This iconic doorway shot choice is flawlessly pristine and it sets up location and context and character in a very artistic manner that you can’t help but admire. The use of this ‘doorway camera’ in the film is greatly executed forever tied to the success of this film.
So in the end, looking past the fact that this movie can be looked at in some ways as being pretty racist it is still beautifully shot, extremely well directed, features great dialogue, and develops an engaging and entertaining story very well. It paved the way influencing many films to come throughout the 70’s, and not only the Western genre, Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976) also takes inspiration from the John Ford classic.